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Robotics: Cinderella Tech, Or An Exciting New Frontier? Comments Off on Robotics: Cinderella Tech, Or An Exciting New Frontier?

digital-200889_640The idea of robotics dates back to ancient Greece. The first mention of a "living statue" or Bronze Man, actually goes back as far as 2400 BCE. Since that time, of course, we've made huge strides in the field of robotics, and we find them increasingly used in manufacturing. Not long ago, MIT created the first self-replicating robots. If that doesn't send shivers down your spine and make you think of the Science Fiction movie "The Terminator," nothing will.

Robotics vs. Chinese Manufacturing Might

Since the 1980's, we've seen this struggle play out. As China's economic star rose, it did so on the basis of simple product manufacture that was well suited to throwing lots of manpower at it. This, more than anything else, was what led to the "Great Offshoring" trend that began in the 1980's and continued on into the early 2000's.

Where manufacturing jobs remained with the industrialized nations, they did so by virtue of two things: 1) They were relatively more complex manufacturing processes ill-suited to mass physical labor assembly lines, and 2) the companies that preserved those manufacturing jobs did so by automating as much of the process as possible.

We've essentially reached the limits of manufacturing via human power alone, however, so any further gains will have to be made by increasingly mechanized means. This is actually perfect, because this plateau has been reached at a point in time when there's been something of a renaissance in robotic technology, which had itself seemed to reach a plateau until the emergence of the self-replicating robots.

Hand in hand with this of course, is the fact that China's labor force is maturing and is increasingly capable of taking on more and more complex manufacturing tasks. Even so, these tasks will, or can be, at least partially automated, which is only going to see the use of robotics increase, penetrating both the Chinese and Indian markets, along with, to lesser degrees, the Indonesian, Mexican, and Brazilian.

Re-Shoring & The Future

Continuing developments in robotics technology, especially as it is combined with other forms of technological innovation, have been responsible for the recent trend in "re-shoring," or the return of manufacturing to industrialized nations. In these instances, the specific technologies that are being coupled with robotics to make this a reality are an increasing reliance on cloud computing and 3d printing, both of which make it possible to print a staggering array of individually customized products from an extremely small manufacturing space with no wasted materials and little need for inventory. This which also serves to keep costs down.

The Robotics/Jobs Trade Off

The next limit that we are likely to run up against, however, in terms of our rush to embrace robotics in more and more of our processes, will be the simple fact that the robots will replace more jobs in total than they create. That is to say, a single robot will likely replace 3-5 human jobs, and create 1 new human job for every 8-10 robots. This will inevitably lead to a situation where the number of long term unemployed continues to increase, along with the duration of that chronic long-term unemployment. This will lead to an increasing amount of social unrest in all parts of the world.

So far, there are no solutions to this looming problem in sight, making robotics an exciting new frontier, but also something of a two-edged sword.